Parashat Vay’chi

A love that causes suffering

Thoughts on parashat Vay’chi

Menachem Mirski

The brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did with their malice and hatred

Thomas More

There are at least several answers to the problem of human suffering in Judaism. They can be broadly divided into two groups: the first includes basically one concept (although it has some variations), namely the deuteronomic doctrine of retribution (or ‘of a just punishment’), according to which there is no suffering that is undeserved. In other words, all suffering is the result of some sin, which means that if you suffer, you must have done something bad or wrong. The second group includes concepts that recognize that there is undeserved suffering in the world, which usually means that human suffering can and should be explained in some way. One of the concepts belonging to this second group is the Talmudic doctrine of yisurin shel ahava, which can be translated as afflictions of love or punishments/corrections of love. According to this concept, God causes suffering to those He loves in order to perfect them. Suffering in this vision is not seen as evil, but paradoxically, a kind of good that leads to perfection:

A potter does not test defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. Similarly the Holy One blessed be He, does not test the wicked, but only the righteous. (Genesis Rabbah 32:3)

Referring to a flax worker, R. Jose b. R. Hanina notes that the more the craftsperson beats quality flax, “the more it improves and the more it glistens.”(Genesis Rabbah 34:2, 40:3, 55:2) God tests only that which can withstand a beating. He administers only those blows that a strong pot, good flax, and a righteous person can endure. Afflictions of love strengthen those who suffer by cleansing them of sin. As Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish is recorded to have said, “Sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.” (Talmud Berakoth 5a.)

This concept also has its popular version sometimes expressed in the words “suffering ennobles”. The rabbis, however, distinguished the sufferings that can be considered the results of the Divine love from those that cannot be, namely, the sufferings that would prevent a person from praying or studying sacred texts. Therefore, this concept has a limited application and cannot be used to explain the monstrosities of the Holocaust or to justify God in its context.

However, it can be successfully applied to the story of Joseph: the humiliation and suffering he endured from the moment he was sold by his brothers, through the humiliation by Potiphar’s wife, as well as through all the years he spent in the Egyptian prison definitely shaped his character. And although Joseph was struggling with various dilemmas when he met his brothers, ultimately there was no trace of resentment or desire for revenge in him. The Torah bears witness to this process several times, which includes this week’s parashah, where the brothers, fearing Joseph’s retribution after their father’s death, are planning to commit one more lie/deception:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did to him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father’s [house].” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your dependents.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21).

 

As Thomas Mann put it:

Joseph is the ideal manifested, as the union of darkness and light, feeling and mind, the primitive and the civilized, wisdom and the happy heart – in short as the humanized mystery we call man.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Thoughts on parashat Miketz

How do we measure true success?

Thoughts on parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

We live in the age of the individual. We are all supposed to be slim, pretty, successful, prosperous, happy, extroverted and popular. The perfect self – that’s the goal our culture constantly encourages us to achieve and we see this everywhere: in advertising, in the press, all over social media. We are told that to be this person you just have to follow your dreams, that our potential is limitless, that we are the only source of our own success.

This image of a perfect self matches to a significant extent the 17 years old Joseph, before he was sold to Egypt by his brothers. Adored by his father, young, smart, arrogant, in colorful clothes, eloquent and articulate. He was also a dreamer pursuing his dreams, not particularly bothered by what other people thought about him.

However, this model of the perfect self can be actually very dangerous. People are very often suffering under the torture of this impossible fantasy. Yes, the opportunities we have are incomparably greater than those of our grand-parents, for example. We have instant access to enormous resources of information, knowledge; it all opens numerous opportunities before us. But because way more people have the same access and the same opportunities we have, the competition is also greater. The paradox of our times is that we can be perfectly safe, secure, have access to advanced healthcare, have well paid jobs, be able to provide for our families – we can be doing very well in many areas of life and can still be depressed – because we didn’t get a promotion, raise or we don’t particularly like our job. Or our new project or new social-media group turned out not be as successful as we initially expected. There are millions of people in the West who are successful, are living perfectly functioning lives, who are safe and secure, have families and friends, money, healthcare and everything they need, and yet they wake up everyday feeling like a failure. The unprecedented social pressure to be more and more successful, in everything, is leading to increases in depression and suicide.

Our biblical Joseph, after many perturbations, also achieves great success. His success is so great that he is willing and able – in his opinion – to completely forget the ‘old times of his misfortunes’:

Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” (Genesis 41:50-51)

Joseph does not become depressed; the Torah does not mention anything about that. What do we then do wrong with our lives? There are several things worth mentioning here. One of the problems is that we compare ourselves to others, in particular to hyper-successful people. We measure our social status by comparing ourselves to those of much higher status, often assuming that their initial social status was the same as ours. Thus, rather than comparing ourselves to others we should compare ourselves to ourselves a few years ago, to the people we were before. Another thing is that we indulge in all kinds of illusions that the internet creates for us and we don’t actually know what is the real life of those we compare ourselves to. It’s pretty often the case that if we really knew what these people are dealing with in their lives we wouldn’t want to be in their place, no matter how successful they are in other realms. The last thing I will mention here, which is certainly not exhaustive of all the things we can do better, is what we can directly learn from Joseph’s story: the ultimate goal of his tremendous success was to help and save his family. Therefore, at the end of the day the most important thing is what we give back to our family or community. You can be a hero in your own life but you can also be a hero for others – one does not exclude another, on the contrary, these objectives are compatible and mutually supportive. If we know about it way ahead and plan our life accordingly the risk that we will lose our sense of direction and meaning of life is very small.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Jewish Family on the Verge of Breakdown

Jewish Family on the Verge of Breakdown

Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum

Angels climbing up and down the ladder that symbolise Jacob’s special connection to the Eternal. Jacob being tricked into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. The births of eleven out of twelve sons of Jacob. The tragedy of Jacob’s only (known) daughter, Dinah. These are the things that come to our minds when we think of this week’s parashah, Vayetzei. Rarely do we focus on the later part of the current Torah portion, which deals with the separation of Laban and Jacob’s households. Poignantly, it has something to teach us about the state of Israel’s relation to Progressive and Conservative Judaism. Still, in order to understand its message, we need to remind ourselves of events that led to the deterioration of the relationship between Laban, Rebecca’s brother, and his nephew Jacob.

Their relationship starts with a heart-warming family reunion. Laban receives Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, with great hospitality and treats him as an honoured guest for a month. Sadly, Laban soon starts to take advantage of his nephew’s love at first sight for his younger daughter, Rachel. First, he makes Jacob work seven years to earn the right to marry his beloved. Yet on their long-awaited wedding day, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his elder daughter Leah instead of Rachel. Laban’s intrigue forces Jacob to endure seven more years of indentured servitude before he is able to marry Rachel. It also sparks bitter reproductive rivalry between two sisters who now vie for attention of their shared husband.

This rivalry results in births of twelve children (eleven sons and Dinah). Blessed (and burdened) with such numerous offspring, Jacob realises that his full economic dependency on Laban does not allow him to adequately provide for his children. He asks Laban for permission to leave with his family. In response, Laban offers to name a price Jacob would accept in exchange for staying. Wisely, Jacob does not ask for a fixed wage. Instead, he requests the freedom to test his cattle and goat breeding skills. From now on, Jacob’s fortune shall be dependent on his herding expertise and adaptability, not on Laban’s favour. Jacob’s decision finds grace in the eyes of the Eternal; soon he becomes a wealthy man. This newly gained affluence irritates Laban’s sons who feel threatened by Jacob’s success. Their dissatisfaction is infectious; soon Laban’s attitude towards him visibly changes. This is when God commands Jacob to leave Laban and embark on the second journey of his life. Rachel and Leah wholeheartedly support his decision. They say:

Are we not accounted by him (Laban) as strangers? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that Eternal took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever Eternal has told you.

(Genesis 31:15-16)

Jacob and his family flee in secret. But before they depart, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim, mysterious objects often associated with divination. Unfortunately for the fugitives, after a short pursuit, an angry Laban catches up with them. Because Rachel prevents her father from finding teraphim, Laban lacks an obvious excuse for chasing them. This means that Jacob and Laban need to address the key sore points in their relationship: Laban’s ongoing exploitation of Jacob and Laban’s unwillingness to recognise the autonomy of his son-in-law’s family.

Optimistically, the story finds a peaceful resolution. Laban and Jacob swear an oath not to harm each other; their oath evokes the memory of their common ancestry and shared beliefs. They also put up a stone to establish a border between their domains and to remind next generations about their mutual commitment to peaceful coexistence.

The shifting dynamics between Laban, Laban’s daughters and Jacob reminds me of the complicated relationship between the State of Israel/Zionism and Progressive Judaism. Just like Jacob fleeing Esau found refuge in Laban’s shelter, Progressive Jews embraced Zionism as the threat of Nazism became clear in the 1930s. When the State of Israel became independent, Progressive Judaism fell in love with its cultural vitality just as Jacob (Israel) fell in love with Rachel. It did not matter that the State of Israel, not unlike Jacob’s first bride, turned out to be not quite what they yearned for. Its founders handed over the control of religious matters to Orthodox authorities, putting the Progressive movement in Leah’s position. Still, just like Leah committed to win Jacob’s recognition, and eventually love, Progressive Judaism has faithfully supported the Jewish State even though it didn’t recognise Progressive weddings and gave Orthodoxy monopoly in the area of Jewish funerals.

Sadly, with time the attitude of many Israeli politicians to Progressive Judaism at home and abroad started to resemble Laban’s treatment of Jacob. Promises of giving more recognition to the Reform movement in Israel were repeatedly made and subsequently revoked. However, the new Israeli government has marked a new low in the relationship between Progressive Judaism and the Jewish State. This past week, pressured by its ultra-Orthodox prospective coalition partners, Likud, the winner of the November 2022 parliamentary elections, agreed to end the recognition of non-Orthodox conversion for purposes of citizenship.  If this law comes into force, Progressive converts without any Jewish roots will not be able to make aliyah.

In such a situation, it would not be surprising for the Jews by choice to say, after Rachel and Leah:

Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? […] Are we not accounted by Laban as strangers? For he has sold us.

(Genesis 31:14-15)

As contemporary Progressive Jews we cannot allow Israel to become a stranger to us. Now is the time to speak loudly about our contributions to the Jewish State, to support the congregations and organisations that promote Progressive worship and values in Israel.

We might not be able to build a ladder that reaches the sky. And we don’t have to. All we need to do now is to set boundaries in conversations we are ready to engage in, to establish norms that would enable both Progressive and Conservative Diaspora Jews as well as Progressive and Masorti Israelis to be noticed and respected by the rest of the Jewish people.

God, you are called Tzuri – our rock, the rock set on the border of Laban and Jacob’s domain to remind them how much they had in common. We ask for Your assistance to remind  the Israeli government that Torah calls for Jewish unity in diversity. We hope that these words of Torah  shall one day become the foundation of a more equitable and respectful relationship between Progressive and Masorti Jews and Israel. May this time come speedily and in our days. Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

Wells and World Cup stadiums

Wells and World Cup stadiums

Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum

If there ever was a 'Patriarch Cup’ of popularity among Abraham, Isaac, Jakob and Joseph, four most prominent male characters in the book of Genesis, Isaac would be bound to land in fourth place. Sounds controversial? Let’s consider it for a moment.

When we think about other patriarchs, we immediately remember stories of amazing or, at the very least, memorable things they did. Abraham (then Abram) followed God’s command and went for himself and all of us to establish monotheism. Later he showed hospitality to angels (and perhaps the Eternal godself) in Mamre and famously bargained with God to spare Sodom. In turn, Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his birth right, was tricked into marrying Lea instead of Rachel and wrestled with a mysterious supernatural being till dawn. Last but certainly not least, Joseph had the power to interpret dreams, became the viceroy of Egypt and invited the nascent people (then more of a family) of Israel to settle in the land of Goshen.

All these are vivid stories of characters actively shaping the fate of their people by moving or taking risky decisions. In comparison, Isaac’s life doesn’t seem to abound in turbulent moments. We first get to know him as an adult in the famously chilling story of Akedat Itzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh HaShanah. However, the theological and narrative focus of this story is put on Abraham rather than Isaac, the latter is, sadly, its object rather than a subject. Some of you might also remember that, just like his father Abraham had to hide Sarah’s identity, Isaac once had to pretend that his wife Rebecca was his sister to spare her romantic pursuits of King Abimelech of Gerar. Notwithstanding these two episodes, Isaac’s life was relatively uneventful. So what did he do? How did he merit the honour of being one of our three patriarchs when charismatic Joseph missed out on this coveted title?

This eek’s Torah portion, Toldot, fills us in on Isaac’s seemingly mundane life. Even though he doesn’t travel like his father Abraham, son Jacob and grandson Joseph, Isaac’s plate is always full. He busies himself sowing in the Land of Canaan and digging numerous wells to make it more habitable. Repeatedly, Isaac encounters opposition from other inhabitants of the land, who block the wells that he has dug. This doesn’t make him waiver in his resolve to improve living conditions for all who dwell in the land. When conflicts arise, Isaac simply moves away to a new location in Canaan and digs another well.

Ultimately, even his opponents recognise the beneficial impact that Isaac’s work has had in Canaan. King Abimelech of Gerar comes to the latest well Isaac has built. There, two leaders swear an oath to each other. From now on, there should be no conflict between them, they shall be brothers united in a common task of making the Land of Canaan a better place. Isaac’s commitment to honest hard work for the benefit of all pays off; it ushers in a short but blessed period of prosperity, peace and brotherhood. The memory of the oath he and Abimelech swore is preserved in the name of the place where their pact was made: Beer Sheva, the ‘Well of the Oath’, now the largest city in the South of Israel and the capital of the Negev.

Hard work, brotherhood, peace. These values embodied by Isaac are supposed to be the ethical underpinnings of any international sporting event, including the football World Cup. Unfortunately, this year’s World Cup in Qatar goes against all the lofty ideals it is supposed to promote. Unlike Isaac’s wells, which were built by the sweat of his brow, Qatari stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure were built by economic migrants in conditions akin to slavery. It is estimated that up to 15,000 migrant workers died working on infrastructure projected initiated in Qatar since the granting of the Cup by FIFA in 2010.

Qatar’s blood-stained human rights record extends beyond the treatment of economic migrants. LGBTQ+ individuals, be it native Qataris or economic migrants, can be punished with imprisonment of up to seven years for living out their identity. For Muslims, the punishment is death penalty. As a result, Qatari LGBTQ+ residents live in hiding and in fear, not in peace that Isaac tried to bring to all he encountered.

If you still decide to watch the World Cup, be mindful of the suffering of economic migrants that went into construction of its infrastructure. Be mindful of the mental anguish of LGBTQ+ individuals that was sacrificed on the altar of Qatar’s and FIFA’s PR. Most disappointingly, the World Cup in Qatar testifies to the failure of the international sporting community to uphold and promote values that they purport to represent.

Luckily, we can promote these very values by emulating Isaac’s behaviour, by channelling his strengths. Here are examples of some of the things we can do.

For instance, we can say Aleinu in solidarity with Qatari LGBTQ+ community.

We can praise footballers who make public statements addressing homophobia and transphobia in Qatar.

Moreover, we can raise awareness of Qatari ruthless exploitation of economic migrants by sharing the stories of the victims of the Cup among them (See https://blankspot.se/part-1-families-whose-dreams-were…/). We can say a Kaddish in their memory before each kick-off.

To put it simply, we can respond to the Cup the way Isaac would.

If we do so, we shall earn the merit of calling ourselves Isaac’s descendants not just in spiritual but also ethical sense.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

Noach

The climate change that caused the flood

Thoughts on parashat Noach

Menachem Mirski

The story contained in our Torah portion for this week can be seen as a metaphor of a great catastrophe in which species were decimated or doomed to total extinction… Only a few of them were to survive, a few individuals of each gender, in order to reproduce and prevent the animal life cycle on the earth from a complete extinction. Does it sound completely unreal today? I don’t think so, it is certainly not beyond the scope of contemporary man’s imagination.

The story of the flood ends with a new Divine promise – the promise of the eternal covenant between God and humankind:

יהוה smelled the pleasing odor, and יהוה resolved: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.

So long as the earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest,

Cold and heat,

Summer and winter,

Day and night

Shall not cease.”

(Genesis 8:20-22)

The above verses can only be understood as a proclamation of faith: as human beings we have no way to verify or falsify them. All we can do is hope that it is true and live with faith that it will, in fact, be so. Nevertheless, people have repeatedly challenged this faith throughout history. The greatest and the most bold challenge to this faith today is posed by climate change.

Climate change is a fact and the one we are experiencing in our times is largely man made. Back in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the request of the UN produced a report from which we know, among other things, a few fundamental things, namely:

  • Increases in average global temperatures are expected to be within the possible range of 0.27 °C (5°F) to 4.8 °C (8.6°F) by 2100, with a likely increase of at least 2.7°F for all possible mitigation scenarios.
  • Except under the most aggressive mitigation scenario studied, global average temperature is expected to warm at least twice as much in the next 100 years as it has during the last 100 years.
  • Ground-level air temperatures are expected to continue to warm more rapidly over land than oceans.

Around the same time climate scientists and economists issued numerous analyses according to which it is going to be very difficult and economically challenging to mitigate the effects of climate change, deeming the most optimistic scenario of 1.5 °C (2.7°F) by 2100 almost impossible to implement, for a variety of reasons – for example, we would have to close and eliminate almost entire energy industry we have at this moment, not only in the US and Europe, but in the entire world, and do it by 2030.

However, what none of those reports says is that we have 12 years until “we all die in a giant ball of fire”, as some politicians and media figures constantly suggest. The idea that the world is going to end in 12 years is an incredible misrepresentation of what the UN Climate Panel has actually done.

But let’s pause here for a second and think: from the analysis brought by scientists from IPCC we know that even if we stopped using fossil fuels completely and reduced our global emission to net zero by 2030, the average temperature on Earth would probably still have increased by 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) by the end of the century. It obviously means that the temperatures on our planet are growing no matter what we do. These facts are commonly known and all of this is well documented by geologists.

he last great global warming in the history of our planet happened roughly 55-58 million years ago and it is called Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. This warming was caused by a massive carbon release into the atmosphere that has been estimated to have lasted from 20,000 to 50,000 years. Geologists estimate that during this entire period, which lasted for about 200,000 years, global temperatures increased by 5–8 °C, from the average earth temperature of 24–25 °C (75–77 °F) of the preceding Paleocene period. This means that the average temperature on our planet might have been at its pick as high as 29-33 °C (84-91 °F), which is about 16-20 °C (27-34 °F) higher than the current average temperature on earth, which currently fluctuates around 13.9-14.5 (57-58 °F)! Both poles were ice free at that time, as in the preceding Paleocene era; the temperatures of Arctic and Antarctic seas were as high as 23 °C (73 °F). The climate of almost the entire planet was tropical; forests covered most areas of our planet, palm trees grew in areas of northern states, like Wyoming, Montana or Canada. How did it affect the animal kingdom? Because of these environmental conditions of that period  an intense evolution of primates took place: The oldest known undoubted fossil primates are about 55 million years old [2][3]. This global warming likely „changed the course of evolution”, as a result of which apes came into being,  from which we, humans, have later evolved. The next epoch, the Eocene, kicked off with a global average temperature more than 8 °C (about 14 °F) warmer than today, gradually cooling over the next 22 million years. Having said that, we are also allowed to say that as living beings we are grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the last global warming.

I am bringing this analysis here in order to put things in a proper perspective and cool down emotions often accompanying this debate. Our planet, and life on it, not only survived but also thrived during much warmer periods than the one we expect to happen. Obviously, the human factor involved in our current situation makes it unprecedented. However, the scenario that things could get out of hand and the earth could become the second Venus as a result of a phenomenon known as the runaway greenhouse effect was found unprobable by scientists in 2013. For this to happen, our whole human civilization would have to emit 10 times more carbon dioxide than we emit today. One of the important factors to stop this effect is life on earth itself, which is capable of absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Another argument often raised in this debate is that even a global increase of 3°C (5.7 °F) will bring prolonged heat waves, droughts and increasingly common and severe extreme weather events. This may be true, however, it is also true that the global percentage of people dying in natural disasters has decreased since the early 1900’s by 95%.

Climate economists have done numerous analyses of the matter. In economic terms, spending on physical assets on the course to net-zero would reach about US$275 trillion by 2050, or US$9.2 trillion per year on average, an annual increase of US$3.5 trillion. [1] I don’t think any economy in the world can possibly bear that kind of burden. The UN report from 2014 estimated that, if we don’t change anything, the economical impact of global warming by 2070 would be equivalent to each one of us losing somewhere between 0.2 and 2 percent of our income. Juxtaposing these two analyses also brings us some additional context – the necessary context we need in the debate on climate change. The scientists and economists who prepared the reports for the UN knew that the most aggressive mitigation options – like a complete worldwide resignation from fossil fuels in a decade or two – were impossible to implement without ensuing a global economic collapse.

There is no scientific evidence that climate change we are experiencing in our times poses any existential threat to planet earth and life on it. Climate change is a real problem and it is something we should strive to fix but we also need a sense of proportion in this matter. If you tell people this could be the end of the world for everyone of us – which is what existential threat means – you are telling people that we should spend everything on fixing this problem and not bother about anything else.  What poses a real threat – to our economy, and therefore to our societies worldwide, are irresponsible energy policies leading to galloping inflation and financial destabilization of the markets, which happens across the western world due to bad decisions of our political leaders. Calling for complete abolition of fossil fuels is not only irresponsible; it is, in fact, a call for genocide: it has been estimated that if we stopped using fossil fuels today, between 20 and 60 million of people would die from startvation within a few days. Who would be willing to take responsibility for a decision like that? We need to steadily transition to more and more clean energy but it cannot be solely dictated by government fiat or a group of lobbying businessmen: the fundamental solution here is to invest in new technologies (such as hydrogen cars, for example) and improvement of existing technologies (like nuclear energy).

Climate change is not the only challenge facing humanity – everyone realized that during the recent pandemic. Thus, we have to ask ourselves how much we want and how much we actually can spend on mitigating this problem compared to all the other problems we, as humanity, are facing. All of it should be a subject of an open, public, honest, academic and intellectual debate. Unfortunately this debate is all too often exceedingly emotional, partisan, full of fear-mongering, apocalyptic visions invented to scare people and emotionally manipulate them to make them accept everything people in power want to implement in response to these challenges. And it is often the case that real and important questions, as well as good, reasonable ideas for solutions get completely drowned in this entire noise, in this media hype.

There is a lot to study and talk about regarding this problem. I was just trying to hallmark some important issues and make some important, in my opinion, points. There is a widespread opinion that governments should play a central role in the entire process of tackling climate change and restructuring our energy industry. This is, in my opinion, a very dubious and dangerous view, especially if it were to entail unrestrained increase of their governmental powers, without a proper concern on economic stability and growth, and without a proper balance in decision-making. Nobody should have power to unanimously dictate solutions here. Nobody owns the science, nobody is entitled or even able to make predictions with absolute certainty. Science on these problems is not absolutely settled and probably won’t ever be. It’s all based on computer models. Basing on my knowledge of the methodology of science I would say that the certainty of what is going to happen in 100 years is not greater than our certainty regarding events that happened on planet earth 50-60 million years ago. There are so many things we don’t know and can’t predict.

We are not omniscient. Human cognition is always limited. But the world will not end in 2030 or 2050; there is no scientific, nor any other rational knowledge that would suggest anything like that. That kind of ‘predictions’ are typically based on misrepresentation of facts, ignorance and fear. Where our knowledge ends, our faith begins. According to some of our biblical commentators, it was not only arrogance that caused the ancient people to build the Tower of Bavel; it was also, if nor primarily, their disbelief: they did not believe in the Divine promise that there would not be another flood. They rejected faith in God’s covenant with mankind and therefore built a civilization that has collapsed. Let us be mindful and let us not repeat their mistake. We have more time to decide; more than we typically think.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

[1]https://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/overview/in-the-news/what-it-will-cost-to-get-to-net-zero

[2]https://www.esrf.fr/home/UsersAndScience/Publications/Highlights/highlights-2013/x-ray-imaging/im2.html

[3]https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/the-history-of-our-tribe-hominini/chapter/primate-evolution/

https://climatechange.chicago.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change

https://www.britannica.com/science/Neogene-Period

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleocene%E2%80%93Eocene_Thermal_Maximum

The position of man in the universe

The position of man in the universe

Thoughts on parashat Bereshit 

Menachem Mirski

God’s unity and oneness is a fundamental theological principle in Judaism. Shema Israel Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad! – these are the words we recite twice a day, everyday. There are, however, passages in the Torah that seem, at first glance, to question this Divine unity:

And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

The very form of  „let us make” as well as „in our image, after our likeness” served Christian theologians to justify their Trinitarian theology, which is an unacceptable position from the Jewish perspective. But what is then the proprer Jewish interpretation of these words spoken by God Himself?

Maimonides, Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama (known as Akeidah) and other commentators explain the expression „let us make” as an invitation to have the upper beings (the angels) and lower beings (the creatures on earth) involved in the creation of man. After God created the upper and lower beings, the need was felt for a creature that would link lower beings with the upper world, so that the lower beings would be able to exist. The man was created partly from the lower beings, from the dust of the earth, as they were created, but the life spirit in him comes from the upper, spiritual beings, like God and angels. This describes the general essence of man. Chazal in Midrash Rabbah 5 tell us that:

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created man, He consulted with the ministering angels and said to them, „If I create him from the upper beings, he will live and not die, and if from the lower beings, he will die and not live. I will therefore create him from the upper and lower beings, so that if he lives he will die, and if he dies he will live.”

This is one of the most penetrating descriptions of man’s existential position. Both his essence and his existence is composed of the contradictory elements: life and death (with the goal of overcoming death and decay through creating life and through the life permeated with creation) as well as the spirit (from the upper beings) and the animalistic aspect (from the lower beings).

The man is therefore a pillar joining the two worlds. However, the goal of human existence is not only to unite these two worlds, but also to lift this lower world to the higher one. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hebrew word for a man – adam – is not derived from adamah – the Hebrew word for the earth – but the other way around. Man is therefore a creative force which is to transform the surrounding reality so that it serves not only him, but also God and God’s plans. This idea is also included in the plural form in the Torah verse above: God uses this plural form just as a king uses the royal plural to stress that all of man’s actions are on behalf of the community and for the good of the community, and by community we mean all existing beings, the lower and the upper beings.

How is man to achieve these goals: joining these two worlds and elevating the lower world? Through actions through and within the Divine commandments – mitzvot – and this is a central element of human nature. Because man was created in the image of God he obtained special features differing from other creatures: intelligence, ability to understand the world and free will. However, man does not obtain these features at birth: every human being is meant to achieve this status over time. Therefore a man can ascend, to become God-like, but is also liable to fall into the abyss and become beast-like. On the practical level it all boils down to one ability: to say no to ourselves, to restrain our own natural impulses. According to the biblical metaphysics every creature acts in accordance with its natural tendencies and is a slave to its passions, but man can control his natural tendencies and that’s the most important way man resembles his Creator: that is the image of God that is part of his essence. We are to take care of the world and all the lower beings; but they, as well as nature and its resources, are to serve us in our duty to serve God. Our obligation is to find the proper balance in this structure; if we succeed in that, the entire world will not only survive but will grow and flourish.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Who will you invite to your Sukkah?

Who will you invite to your Sukkah?

Rabin Mati Kirschenbaum

 One of my favourite Sukkot traditions is Ushpizin, a Kabbalistic custom of ‘inviting’ spiritual ancestors of the Jewish people to the Sukkah on every day of the festival. In Orthodox Judaism, the guest list was limited to males: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Each of these guests was supposed to represent a sefirah, a distinct aspect of Divine presence. Non-Orthodox Judaism tried to complement this list with illustrious Biblical heroines. One of the suggested lists included seven biblical prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther. Others suggested that seven sefirot, divine attributes are embodied by Ruth, Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam, Deborah, Tamar, and Rachel. As you can see, there isn’t one clear understanding regarding the right guests who we should invite to our Sukkot. They don’t even have to be biblical characters. What matters is that we are inspired by their example, by virtues and causes they represent, by the heritage they connect us with. All we have to do is to think of great figures from Jewish history that we would want to invite for a meal, to get to know in person. I am sure that each of you has your personal favourites. This Sukkot, as a Polish Progressive Jew, I would like to introduce to my Polish Ushpizin – characters from Polish Jewish history – that I would love to welcome to my Sukkah. Just like the biblical characters, they represent seven sefirot – Divine aspects – our Polish Jewish heritage.

Janusz Korczak (1978-1942) – Chesed (Loving Kindness).

Janusz Korczak embodies loving kindness. This quality is best expressed in his words:[1]

 I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and act. It is not the duty of

those around me to love me. Rather, it is my duty to be concerned about the

world, about man.

Julian Tuwim (1894-1953) – Gevurah (Steadfast commitment to one’s values)

Julian Tuwim embodied steadfast dedication to speaking up in the face of injustice. His poem, the Common Man, expresses this sentiment:[2]

 When press begins the battle-cry

That nation needs to unify

And for your country you must die…

Dear brainwashed friend, my neighbor dear

Brother from this, or other nation

Know that the cries of anger, fear,

Are nothing but manipulation

by fat-cats, kings who covet riches,

And feed off your sweat and blood – the leeches!

When call to arms engulfs the land

It means that somewhere oil was found,

Shooting 'blackgold’ from underground!

It means they found a sneaky way

To make more money, grab more gold

But this is not what you are told!

 

 Markus Jastrow (1829-1903) – Tiferet (Harmony, reconciliation)

Markus Jastrow believed that Jews and Poles can build a future together. His sermon, delivered in 1861, expresses the hope for the future defined by sense of brotherhood between our nations:[3]

I am seeking brotherly love that would recognise me as the brother of my

brothers; I am seeking brotherly tolerance, that would let me uphold my

convictions, however different they may be, when it comes to matters of which

only God can serve as a judge; Furthermore, I am seeking brotherly

understanding for my weaknesses, brought upon me by times of misery, when,

just like Joseph, I was groaning in a dark pit surrounded by serpents and

vipers; in other words; I am seeking my brothers, those whom my teachings

command me to recognise as my brothers. – Such is precisely the call of the

people of Israel both today and in all places where they still have not been able

to find their brothers.

Puah Rakovsky (1865-1955) – Netzah (Perseverance)

Puah Rakovsky devoted her life  to the struggle for women’s rights. Her words and life embody the virtue of perseverance:[4]

With that hope in mind (education), I settled in Warsaw that first year, finding

room and board for myself and my little daughter in a boarding house. I lived

frugally so that I could save enough from my income that year to be able to

travel abroad to study. But one thing bothered me very much: should I take

both children with me or leave the boy to be educated by my father. I was

afraid that such an education would separate my own child from me since my

father and I were far apart spiritually, and the distance was liable to open a

chasm between me and my son. This internal struggle lasted almost a whole

year and ended with a triumph of maternal love. I decided I could complete

my studies at a university of Warsaw, where instruction would be in Russian. I

wrote wrote my parents to bring my son to me, rented a small apartment in a

poor neighbourhood, and made do on my salary.

 

It is incumbent on women to, making the highest effort, obtain positions in

economy, legislature and government.[5]

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) – Hod (Acceptance)

Bruno Schulz was aware that sometimes we find greatness in accepting our limitations. He wrote:[6]

Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread.

There they have their antecedents and their consequences, which crowd

tightly together and press hard one upon the other without any pause. This

has its importance for any narrative, of which continuity and successiveness

are the soul.

Could it be that time is too narrow for all events? Could it happen that all the

seats within time might have been sold? Worried, we run along the train of

events, preparing ourselves for the journey.

 Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) – Yesod (Foundational principles)

 Rosa Luxemburg believed that freedom for all should be a foundation of a just society. She wrote:[7]

Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of

the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom

is always the freedom of dissenters.

 

Zuzanna Ginczanka (1917-1945) – Malchut (Sovereignty, Independence)

Zuzanna Ginczanka was a firm believer that each individual has the right to find their own path in life and to thread it on their own terms. Her poem ‘Justified in The Margins’ expresses this belief:[8]

I did not come from dust, so I won’t go back to dust.

I did not come from heaven so I am not heaven-bound.

I myself am heaven, a sky of purest glass.

And earth itself am I, a child of native ground.

I did not run at all, so I won’t be running back.

Apart from my own self, all else is unconfined.

My lungs bellowing wind all sediments do crack

And I, fragmented, here now myself must find.

 

I hope you were inspired by my Ushpizin and Ushpizot. This Sukkot,  I encourage you to think about which famous historical Jews you would like to meet. When you think about them, they will join you in your Sukkah, bringing insight and inspiration. I wish you all a happy end of Sukkkot!

 

Mati Kirschenbaum

[1] Janusz Korczak, Ghetto Diary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 69.

[2] Translation found on https://allpoetry.com/The-Common-Man, accessed October 12, 2022.

[3] Markus Jastrow, „Modlitwa i Kazanie miane podczas nabożeństwa żałobnego odprawionego w d. 27. Adar 5621 (9. Marca 1861) za dusze ofiar poległych dnia 27. Lutego t. r.” [Prayer and sermon delivered at the mourning service conducted on Adar 27th 5621 (March 9th 1861) in memory of the souls of the Victims fallen on February 27th this year] (1861), in Kazania miane podczas ostatnich wypadków w Warszawie r. 1861 [Sermons given during the latest incidents in Warsaw in 1861] (Poznan: Ludwik Merzbach, 1862), 19. English translation (unpublished) by Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

[4] Puah Rakovsky, My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland, ed.

Paula Hyman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 29.

[5] My translation of Puah Rakovsky, ‘Czy można połączyć pracę społeczną z obowiązkami rodzinnemi?’

[Can one combine community work with family obligations?], article published in Ewa [Eve.

Polish-language weekly newspaper for Jewish women], January 13, 1929

[6] Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, (London:Penguin Classics, 2008), 129.

[7] My translation of the quote from Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, (Berlin (Ost): Dietz

Verlag, 1983), 359.

[8] Zuzanna Ginczanka, „Wyjaśnienie na marginesie.” [Justified in The Margins] in O centaurach [Of

Centaurs] (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo J. Przeworskiego, 1936), 26. Translation of the poem Wyjaśnienie na marginesie [Justified in The Margins] found at

http://off-press.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/OF-CENTAURS-layout-NEW-DRAFT-EN-P

L-V1.pdf (accessed

 

Dvar Torah Nitzavim 2022

Dvar Torah Nitzavim 2022

 Rabbi  dr Barbara Borts

As you cannot help but know, Queen Elizabeth II died earlier this month. I’m not a monarchist – I was raised in that most republican of all countries, the USA, and when I became a Brit and was offered the choice of an oath or affirmation of allegiance, I choose the latter. I know many people avoided becoming naturalised here because they did not want to be subjects instead of citizens. Nevertheless, I find it astonishing that she began her reign in the year of my birth, and I admit to some teary eyes watching the various films about her during the week of her mourning.

Deuteronomy is the textual equivalent of those films,  the history of Moses and his service to the people, his highs and lows, leading us to Nitzavim, Vayeilekh, and Haazinu, his death and the public mourning thereof. And a whisper about the future – the king is dead, long live the king.`

Moses enters our story in a startling manner, demonstrating great courage when, despite being one of the royals and therefore wealthy and privileged, he stands up for slaves and the injustice of their mistreatment. He has a mystical encounter with God, and the intimations of his life’s ‎mission, which he humbly attempts to decline, then bravely accepts. He –  what is the expression people are so fond of – speaks truth to power on behalf of the suffering Israelites, to persuade Pharoah to let them go, and then turns his work towards persuading the people to free themselves from servile attitudes and commit themselves to God and become a holy people.

His life, as we read, was often a nightmare. He was both administrative and legislative leader all in one, a go-between for the people and God, a therapist, helping to mediate between the fear, despair and rank superficiality of the people, and he bore the awesome responsibility of meeting God ponim el ponim, face to face.  No descriptions of him playing with dogs, or having a laugh with a friend. Even his family proved difficult to manage.

After all of what he endured to get to the edge of the wilderness, why was he not allowed to lead them into the land? The usual explanation was that it was because he lost his temper with the people and disobeyed God in the process, at the waters of merivah, but I wonder if it is simpler than that. New historical circumstances require different leadership skills and refreshed perspectives. Just as the queen served through the times of war and empire, so Moses served through the Exodus and the Revelation. For the sake of the future, Moses needed to move aside for the people to assume responsibility for themselves, and for their relationship with God, as they proclaimed there again at the threshold of their entry,  and with Joshua, neither prophet nor teacher, new potential arose for the people.

I would assert something similar with regard to the queen. I waded into a bit of controversy when I posted on Facebook that, although I acknowledged that Elizabeth had ‘queened’ extremely well, was an admirable and fine leader, I thought this was an opportune time to lay monarchy to rest, playing my role as  the prophet  Samuel,  warning against the establishment of a monarchy. Many commented,  insisting that a nation could either have a monarch, or a president, the spoken and unspoken fear that ‘President’ inevitably brings Trump. The monarchy was essential to prevent that, they maintained.  And there it was – people want leaders, no, they want superheroes, stars, sporting greats, messiahs, and what Rabbi Jack Bloom called Symbolic Exemplars, leaders who are experienced as, treated as, and expected to act as substitutes for Jewish tradition, and even for God.

Many people bestow upon an idealised ‘other’ the power to make sense of life, to locate clarity, stability, and answers within that ‘one’  and thereby help us to understand a world that is often bewildering.  As my friend Rabbi Richie Address wrote to me, “We fear the knowledge that we are alone, and that much of what we will make ‎of life rests within our hands‎.”  Anything rather than face full on the fundamental questions about how to find meaning in life because, and I believe this strongly, there is no a priori meaning, just that which we forge and create. And it is hard work. And it can be painful and frightening.

So what about Moses, as we visit him on the precipice of his own death? Moses’s vision was similar to that of the queen, in that it came with the imprimatur of divine calling, hers inherited, his bestowed, neither democratically ‘elected’. Both were modest, both avowedly religious. Both were very old. And both worked hard until the day they died.

Moses was given a  mission – to bring the people out of Egypt and to Sinai, to accept a covenant with God. And from there, to lead them to the land promised them. Here in Nitzavim, he assembles the people and asks them to reaffirm their ‎covenant with God, which they do – the verb ‘nitzav’’ means ‘to position ‎oneself,’ an active decision to place oneself somewhere rather than passively simply being there. Then Moses dies, and as Torah tells us, his burial spot is unknown, nor we do not mention him in ‎the Haggadah at Pesach, all of which to ensure we do not place human beings, however worthy, at the centre of our worship.  Not even Moses! And who ‎‎better than ‎you in Poland to understand the dangers of placing a human being at ‎the centre ‎‎of a nation ‎‎– we only need to look at Putin, or back further, to Hitler, ‎to ‎‎understand the dark flipside of charismatic leadership.‎ ‎

We are told concerning the Queen that she united the nation and inspired people, but did she? Could she even have done so? She may have been admired and loved,  ‎‎but the UK  is a nation on the ‎precipice of disaster, torn in half by the Brexit vote, and by ‎‎schisms between ‎North, where I live, and South. Scotland may still leave, ‎‎Northern Ireland is in ‎turmoil once more, again due to issues with Brexit. There is ‎‎rampant ‎xenophobia, many Polish people bearing the brunt of this. And so on.

Did Moses succeed? Let’s look at the  ‎Jewish people. Are we yet unified within our religious world, dedicated to the ‎highest of values? I wish we were, but we definitely are not.

Given all of this, I question the core idea that we need inspiration from symbolic exemplars, queens, or even prophets.  The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, „At the end of his life, Moses recognized one great failure of his leadership. He ‎had taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he hadn’t taken Egypt out of the ‎Israelites. He had changed his people’s fate, but he hadn’t changed their ‎character… So long as there is a Moses ‎performing miracles, the people do not have to accept responsibility for ‎themselves…”[1]

This is the excruciating task of the HH days ahead, to accept responsibility for themselves. There are limits to that, as I will discuss on Rosh Hashanah. But that seems to be Moses’s fervent wish, as he ends his life: ‎‘It is not in heaven, ‎it is in your mouth to do it, choose life.” There is an oft-quoted midrash, whose punchline is, when you appear in olem habo, the world to come, they will not ask you why were you not Moses, but rather, why were you not yourself.

As I wrote this, I became rather more agnostic about that the idea of an inspirational figurehead. I read another compelling passage by Jonathan Sachs, where he also argues for the opposite. He stated, “There is a danger in a religion like Judaism, with so many clear cut rules … that we may forget that there are areas of life which have no rules, only role models, but which  are no less religiously significant for that…There are text books and there are text people. We learn virtue less by formal instruction than by finding virtuous people and observing how they live. Sometimes we make a difference less by what we do than by what we are.”[2]  And I thought, perhaps those who earned their prominence, a Marek Edelman, or a David Attenborough, are worthy of emulation.

The task is still the same and whether motivated by a Moses or a Queen Elizabeth, an Edelman or an Attenborough, or through ones own religious experience, or in reading an inspiring text, it is ultimately up to the individual to accept responsibility for what they do in life and situate that inside of themselves, which is the message of these days of repentance. Otherwise it is still too easy to wave a flag and then vote to keep immigrants out, or to carefully examine ones food, but then insult another person. It is set before you today…

[1] Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks

[2] Ibid. To Heal a Fractured World. P.239

 

 

 

Nitzavim

Prayer as a decision making tool

Thoughts on parashat Nitzavim

Menachem Mirski

Prayer. Why do we pray? When do we pray? What do we expect from prayer? What’s the meaning or function of prayer today? What are the good things that come from the experience of prayer?

These are all important questions for religious people and have many answers. But before trying to answer them again, let’s take a brief look at history. It seems that prayer was not a central element of Jewish worship in antiquity, although it was known for quite a long time. Even though the first acts of prayer described in the Torah are at the very beginning of Jewish history – the first person that prays in the Bible is Abraham (Gen. 20:7), in the Torah itself it is quite a „spontaneous” activity, i.e. without a structured, ritualistic character. Obviously, Moses constantly communicates with God, and often utters petitions, using the Hebrew particle נָא (nah), it is a dialogue between a prophet and God.

Our Torah portion for this week starts with that kind of encounter with God. The Israelites, upon their entrance to the Promised land, are literally standing before God, in order to affirm the Covenant they entered into with Him:

You stand this day, all of you, before your God יהוה – your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer – to enter into the covenant of your God יהוה, which your God יהוה is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions, in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God יהוה and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:9-14).

Although this experience is projected to have an eternal character, the nature of the event above is slightly different from what we have typically understood through prayer since the beginning of the rabbinic era. The 'core’ verb describing this activity – לְהִתְפַּלֵּל (lehitpalel) appears in the entire Pentateuch only 7 times and it occurs in the context of the activity of only two people – Abraham and Moses. 'To pray’ in Hebrew does not mean “asking God for something” as is often understood in Indo-European languages, but „to expose oneself to God’s judgment”. However, despite these linguistic nuances I would define the phenomenon of prayer more broadly, namely, as any verbal encounter with God, any type of communication with God. That’s because I believe that not every verbal encounter with God involves his judgment.

Prayer never is, and has never been, a magic wand that makes things go as expected. A true, deep prayer is always a dialogue, although the response from God we get in this or other way (i.e. something happens to us, in reality or just in the realm of our internal life) is almost never immediate.

We, human beings, should not pray for things we know that are impossible, like praying for suspension of the laws of gravity. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it:

Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.

Surely, the line between what is possible and what is not is not carved in stone, it is not clearly defined. It is a matter of our faith and our wisdom. People of great faith draw this line elsewhere than people of small faith. Some people believe that prayer never has a direct, objective impact on reality. Some of them believe that prayer has no meaning at all; for some others prayer is merely a tool of self -reflection or self-programming. But there is, I believe, also another way to understand prayer in our times, that is more objective than self-reflection and self-programming.

I strongly believe that what we need today is the fundamental distinction between theology of nature and theology of spirit. The Tanakh, as well as the rabbinic literature makes no clear distinction between them; however, throughout history we have discovered that the natural and the spiritual are separate realms, governed by different sets of laws and principles, even though they are complementary and strongly dependent on each other. The solution I would propose is to have a theistic theology of spirit and deistic theology of nature. In short, only the spiritual and everything that belongs to the realm of human will can be directly controlled by us and by God. The realm of Nature was pre-programmed by God and as such cannot be a subject of arbitrary decision or momentary change. The borderline between human free choice and natural determination is at the same time the borderline between theology and science. Both fields operate in a different way, according to different principles, assumptions and postulates.

In what area will prayer then work according to that kind of philosophy? The answer is: in every area where human decision making is involved. There is a certain degree of freedom in the world. Although we don’t have absolute freedom and in the realm of human freedom we still deal with forces that affect our experiences and decisions. Not everything in our life is really determined, on the contrary, many things we experience are almost pure consequences of our choices and decisions. For example, being sick or healthy may be one of them. Everything we do has real, objective consequences, and very often long-term, durable ones.

In the realm of human freedom one of the factors that leads us to positive or negative results is prayer (or absence of it). We can never be sure of it but it always may be a crucial factor that will decide whether things would go this or the other way. Human factor opens a space for the Divine act. Therefore, wherever human decision makes an impact that’s where prayer can have an impact as well. That’s why when I want something to happen, I pray for it.

Medical decisions – that’s where the decision making is crucial and determines matters of life and death. You can heal or save yourself by a good decision and kill yourself by a bad, thoughtless or spiritless one. In the old times where people had much less control over reality it was a daily experience. In our times our control over reality and natural phenomena is tremendously expanded, but still this reality of a complete uncertainty and lack of control is looming from time to time. That’s why it is very important to be thoughtfully prepared to make good decisions in these moments, because everything may depend on it. Thoughtfully prepared means also prepared spiritually, by having hope and endorsing true values.

Whenever there is free will and free decision involved – there is no strict determinism, we only deal with forces and factors we can accept or object. At this point reason and science do not dictate anything; they become just a tool, a helpful tool to make good, proper decisions. In the realm of human freedom, hope, belief and motivation play a crucial role. We think of ourselves, we think of our bodies and treat our bodies according to the ideology and the system of values we believe in. Our fate is determined by what we believe in, as well as on how determined, motivated or responsible we are. For example, you can drive to a dive bar, get drunk and get killed on your way back driving drunk on the freeway. You can stay home, read a book or watch a movie, and remain alive because of that. Obviously, none of this has to happen if you are a responsible person; for thoughtful and responsible people the example I have just given is a false alternative. You can still go to a dive bar but spend some more money and take a taxi or an Uber. How is it connected to prayer? Prayer instills in us everything our religion talks about: views on the meaning of life in society, meaning of the universe, value structure, the importance of self-control, responsibility etc. Jewish prayer is also an important component of Jewish identity and everything we consider Jewish values. All of that is instilled in us through prayer and will determine our fate, through our own actions or lack of them.

מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת, מִי בְקִצּוֹ, וּמִי לֹא בְּקִצּוֹ, מִי בַמַּיִם, וּמִי בָאֵשׁ, מִי בַחֶרֶב, וּמִי בַחַיָּה, מִי בָרָעָב, וּמִי בַצָּמָא, (…) מִי יַעֲנִי, וּמִי יַעֲשִׁיר, מִי יֻשְׁפַּל, וּמִי יָרוּם.

Who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst (…) who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted. (Unetane Tokef)

Shabbat shalom and Shanah Tovah!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Shoftim

Politics and truth

Thoughts on parashat Shoftim

Menachem Mirski

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God יהוה is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (Deuteronomy 16:18, the first verse of parashat Shoftim)

There are three classical theories of truth that also define what truth is. The first, formulated by Aristotle, says that truth consists in conforming to reality: what is true is what is in accordance with reality. It sounds quite obvious. This definition, of course, is logically correct – it was formulated by one of the founding fathers of logic as an exact science. However, this definition suffers from one fundamental problem: to say that something is true, to confront an idea with reality, we need to know what the reality is, right? So, in order to check if something is true, we must know this reality in advance, or more specifically – the truth about it. So in order to know the truth, we must know the truth. Sounds like taken out of statements of some politicians.

The second classical theory of truth is the concept of (mutual) consistency. According to this concept, a thought, idea, or hypothesis is true if it is consistent with other theories and concepts that are commonly believed to be true. While this concept has some application (it is widely applied in science), it is riddled with problems: for example, we need to be absolutely sure that all our other knowledge, previously acquired, is true in order to conclude that the hypothesis we are investigating is true. It is enough that one element of this logically coherent puzzle is false and our entire system may fall apart like a house of cards. Obviously, one can always come up with all sorts of arguments and strenuously defend some theories until there is nothing left to defend. Moreover, the concept of consistency itself, devoid of the condition of „compliance with reality” paves the way for all kinds of bizarre theories and various, logically coherent, lofty-sounding pseudo-academic delusions that have inspired dozens of social experiments and brought poverty, starvation, wars and death to millions of people.

The third classic concept is the so-called pragmatic theory of truth. According to this concept, a thought, idea, or theory is true if it produces the effects it says it will produce. A specific version of this concept is expressed in this week’s Torah portion:

Whereupon יהוה said to me, “They have done well in speaking thus. I will raise up for them from among their own people a prophet like yourself, in whose mouth I will put My words and who will speak to them all that I command; […] And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by יהוה ?” — if the prophet speaks in the name of יהוה and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by יהוה; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of that person. (Deuteronomy 18:17-18,21-22)

Obviously, all of this is expressed in a context that contains an underlying premise that everything that God thinks or says is true. So if a given idea comes from God, it will come true, it will have an effect in reality – it will work in practice in accordance with its intent. If, on the other hand, it does not come true, it does not act as it „should” according to itself, then it does not come from God; it is not true. According to the Torah, one should not be afraid of such an utterance or the person who utters it. (Deut 18:22) And this is a very important suggestion that can be understood in several ways, for example: such a man is not to be feared and his „truth” can or even should be ignored.

In reality, at least from a theoretical point of view, in order to get really  close to the truth, all three theories of truth above must be applied. So if, for example, we want to gain knowledge about which political party really wants our prosperity and will finally bring the 'messianic age’, and which only deceives us to use, abuse and betray us, and give us over to our enemies, we must be sure that: 1. We know the intentions, plans and competences of these people, ideally all of them, realistically – at least of their leadership (we would actually need to know the thoughts of these people, not just what they say publicly, and definitely not what other talking heads on TV say about them). 2. Our knowledge about them is logically consistent and we do not reject given information only because it does not fit into our „wishful” puzzle, 3. The ideas and plans that they implement bring the intended results (and they are the results we desire as well). However, in practice, the implementation of points 1 and 2 requires a lot of effort and is time-consuming. Therefore, living in professionalized societies, we rely on others in our diagnosis, e.g. the media to provide us with information. This, however, does not solve the problem, only moves it elsewhere: in this situation, we have to apply points 1 and 2 to our sources of information, and therefore to the media. And since the media very often says what politicians expect of them, the situation becomes a vicious circle and becomes pretty dramatic. So let’s forget points 1 and 2, and just focus on whether the given ideas bring (their intended) results – whether the things the people say bring intended and predicted by them results. This is a good sign because it means that those people are in touch with reality and are able to influence it in an intended way.

That’s basically all we can do. Everything else, especially if it sounds like nonsense – is inconsistent or out of touch with reality – is best ignored, as well as the people who utter it.

For their own good and for our peace of mind.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.